Unanswered Prayers

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Someone asked me a while back about my taste in music.

“ABC,” I answered. Anything But Country.

I love classical symphonies, electronic big beat, bluegrass, rock and roll, jazz fusion – you name it. I’ve just never been able to resonate with mournful tunes about breakups, bankruptcies, “She got the gold mine and I got the shaft,” and who gets to keep the double-wide trailer.  

But I do make one exception. I love Garth Brooks – his voice, his heartfelt poetry, and his ability to combine the best of both country and rock.

He won me over with songs like Unanswered Prayers. According to the lyrics, he runs into his old high school flame. That gets him thinking about what might have been. He had prayed desperately for the chance to spend his whole life with this girl. If God would grant him just this one wish, he would never ask for anything again. 

But it never happened. And because of that, he’s thrilled. Overwhelmed with gratitude for the partner he did in fact marry, he sings:

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talking to the Man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

Adam Hamilton, who pastors a church in Kansas City, acknowledges that many of the greatest blessings in his life have come in the aftermath of prayers that God chose not to answer.

When he was 11 years old, his parents gathered the family and announced they were getting divorced. Adam, crushed, fled to his bedroom in tears. He pleaded with God to keep his mom and dad together. The divorce happened anyways. What little faith he had in God at that moment was swept away, seemingly forever.

Today Hamilton wonders who he would be and what he would be doing if God had said Yes to his passionate pleas.

As he shares in his book Struggling with Doubt, Finding Faith, his mother would not have remarried. They would not have moved to another part of the city. He would not have received the particular invitation to try a particular church, and would therefore not have been present on the day he was drawn to receive Christ.

Nor would he have met the girl who would become his wife, which means their daughters and granddaughter would not have been born. Theologians have long wrestled with the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human free will.  Hamilton asks: Apart from the path he actually followed, would he ultimately have heard a call to ministry and then established the Church of the Resurrection, one of the most vibrant congregations in America?

Likewise, it comes as a surprise to many Bible readers that some of Scripture’s most famous prayers go unanswered.

David cries out in the midst of suffering, “Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:2). Significantly, this seems to be the very psalm Jesus brings to mind while dying on the cross.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus asks his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). But the Father does not take the cup from Jesus.    

The apostle Paul tells his Corinthian readers that he has asked God “three times” (which probably means three intensely serious times of focused prayer) to take away an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” God says no. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

It’s not uncommon to hear Christians say, “Well, of course there are unanswered prayers. God doesn’t answer the pleas of those who lack faith.” But no one can make a credible case that either Jesus or Paul were seriously deficient in faith.

One of the central challenges of trusting God is that most of us go through life thinking we know exactly what is going on.

We approach life’s intersections and believe we know how and when God should respond to a particular request.

But more often than we can imagine, we’re clueless. In our muddled way of assessing reality, we may conclude that God isn’t even listening – and maybe doesn’t know the first thing about running the universe. 

But as the late author and pastor Tim Keller wisely observed, “God gives you everything you would have asked for if you knew everything God knows.” 

We read in Scripture, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). God does grant heartfelt desires – but not necessarily the way we want, nor on a timetable that we get to approve.   

Likewise, the wonder of serving a gracious God is that he is just as likely to give us something far better than we could ever have imagined.   

About three and a half centuries after the time of Jesus, a mother living on the Mediterranean coast of Africa spent a sleepless night pleading with God to prevent her spiritually skeptical son from sailing the next day to Italy. Monica prayed, “Please let him stay here in Africa so that one day he might find and serve you!” 

All she heard was silence.

Her son Augustine sailed away unhindered, leaving his mother feeling helpless and confused. 

But God knew best. In Italy, the future Saint Augustine came under the influence of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who mentored him into a spiritual life that would ultimately bless and transform all of Christian history.

Later in life, Augustine reflected on his mother’s sincere prayers that night. He was grateful – grateful that God chose not to answer them. If God had said Yes to her stated desire, then her real desire for his spiritual awakening might never have been satisfied. 

Augustine wrote this prayer of thanks: “You, Lord, in the depth of your counsels, hearing the main point of her desire, regarded not what she then asked, so that you might make me what she always desired.”

God, in other words, knows what he is doing. And when to do it.

When we’re in the midst of a season of disappointment – when God seems distant, silent, and unresponsive – it can be hard to cling to the conviction that all is well.

But in the words of Saint Garth of Nashville, “Just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care.”